Helicopter parents are a real thing—especially in education. In fact, there should probably be a class in every credentialing program titled, “How to Successfully Teach with a Helicopter Parent.” By no means are helicopter parents the worst kind of parent…but they definitely aren’t the best by any stretch either. Probably the best thing about helicopter parents is how fun it is to make fun of them. It’s like watching those videos where sound effects are replaced by Owen Wilson saying, “Wow!” It doesn’t really accomplish anything…it’s just really fun to do.
We routinely roll our eyes and scoff at our helicopter parents for emailing us on a Saturday asking if we can meet before school on Monday to discuss the recent B+ you gave their child on the most recent essay. My Sally is a bright and shining star who is just too beautiful and special in her own amazing way to be told she is anything less than exceptional!
But if we are being honest with ourselves—and hey, if this blog has done anything, it has provided us all with a space to be honest with ourselves…here, I’ll show you what I mean [looks in mirror]: Jason, you’re getting kind of fat. I’ve been meaning to tell you since you got back from Paris, but you need to lay off the butter on toast, pal. You’re one more “little chocolate treat” away from needing to buy your clothes at GAP “Husky”—if we’re being truly honest with ourselves, we are (more often than not) just like those obnoxious helicopter parents.
What? Why I never! My colleagues and I are bright shining stars who are too beautiful and special in our own amazing way to be told we are anything less than exceptional!
Of course you are! It’s just…when you think about it, we teachers—like our helicopter parents—are so afraid that our students will not understand a concept or will not successfully master a brand new skill (or fail, outright) that we end up spending many unnecessary hours creating spoon-fed lesson plans. These plans are beautiful, intricate, and student-proof. But, like helicopter parents, they don’t create well-adjusted, critical-thinking students.
Recently TMST (that’s my student teacher, Teach Me Student Teacher) was telling me how she was going to teach transition words to her class. She was going to have a multi-part lesson (spanning more than a day) that would culminate with the requirement that transition words must be incorporated throughout the essay her students were about to write. Her plan was elegant. Her plan was rigorous. Her plan was so thorough that every one of her students would likely master transition word usage by the time they wrote their essay the following week.
But her plan was also too much.
When I suggested she might be spoon-feeding a bit, TMST asked me how I planned on introducing transition words to my classes. I replied, “I’m going to ask the students to guess or explain what a transition word does. Then I’m going to give them the actual definition. Then I’m going to give them a list of transition words with examples of their use broken into categories. Then I’m going to tell them they need to use transition words properly throughout the next essay…OR ELSE!” And then I shook my fist like a cartoon villain because I’m a friggin’ stooge.
“That’s it?” She asked, clearly unconvinced.
“That’s it. I’ve done it this way for years and it’s never failed me.”
Okay, West…you’re so amazing that you tell kids to learn something and they all learn it perfectly, is that what you’re saying?
No, but welcome back, naysaying imaginary reader! How was your spring break? Good? Great! Let me first explain that time does not equal rigor or quality. Just because something takes a long time to teach, doesn’t mean it’s the best way to teach it. For example, do you really need more than five seconds to master the use of a Slap Chop? I mean, just reading the name makes you kind of an expert, right? We don’t always need lessons that rival the length of a Ken Burns documentary in order to thoroughly understand something.
Second, there will always be students who don’t get a concept, regardless of how intricate and amazing your lessons are. So, when a student doesn’t completely grasp my austere overview of transition words, I take the time I’ve saved by not creating days-long lessons to work one-on-one with those struggling students.
Lastly—and this third part of my explanation is the most important—the majority of my students do get it. They totally understand it (and prove it year in and year out in their essays). And it’s taken me years of building up the confidence—both in myself and in my students—to trust that my students will “get it.”
Kids are amazingly resourceful and resilient. We should trust them to not let us down more because, frankly, they won’t let us down as much as we assume they will. Think of your students as a reverse Adam Sandler. Ooh, I heard Adam Sandler’s back to making really funny movies again! I heard his new one on Netflix is his best since Waterboy! Nope…it’s terrible. It’s always terrible. Adam Sandler will always let you down. Your students will not.
The ironic thing is that if you assume students will understand something that is challenging, they will put in more effort to understand that challenging thing! Because, brace yourself, it turns out that feeling respected for your intellect gives you the confidence to think more critically to solve challenging problems!
So the next time you’re making one of your bright shining lessons (the ones that are too beautiful and special in their own amazing way to be labeled as anything less than exceptional), ask yourself this: Am I being a helicopter teacher? Am I spoon-feeding my students too much? Or am I actually helping my students figure out how to feed themselves?